"I don't want to be part of this," Ismael said, his voice rising. "This is bullshit." The man ignored him. "I'm going to take care of you."
Six days later, the man called again. He would arrive in 15 minutes. Hanging up, Ismael walked into the storage area behind the corner store he owns in the Outer Mission. In the room's dim light, he bowed toward Mecca, his chest tight with dread. He implored Allah to watch over him.
Finishing his prayer, Ismael returned to the store's cramped office, where in a steel combination safe he kept a registered handgun that he had bought to scare off thieves. He considered stuffing the .45 in his sweat shirt pocket, then decided little good could come from packing a gun, no matter what the man's intentions. So he sat down to wait, staring at a small TV monitor that transmits the feed from the shop's security cameras. Long minutes passed until, in one corner of the split screen, he spotted four or five men rushing toward the front entrance. When one of them turned, Ismael read the white letters on the back of his dark jacket: DEA.
Fear urged him to flee through the back door; common sense warned he wouldn't get far. Slowly, he shuffled out of his office and into federal custody.
The agents cuffed him on drug conspiracy charges, alleging he brokered multiple deals to sell cocaine and methamphetamine over a 17-month span. As they escorted Ismael from the store, he scanned the sidewalks along Mission Street. Nowhere did he see Essam Magid, the man who called him -- and, he believed, conned him.
Authorities shuttled Ismael downtown and placed him in a holding cell; three men he recognized would eventually join him. Like Ismael, they now realized Sam, as Magid called himself, worked as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Yet beyond sharing their anger, Ismael felt a deep sense of shame. Well before their arrests last November, Ismael says, he agreed to abet Magid in a drug sting -- only he and the others weren't supposed to be its targets.
Days after they first met in June 2003, Ismael asserts, Magid claimed he was running a federal drug investigation and made an unusual business pitch: In exchange for introductions to any small-time dope peddlers Ismael might know, Magid would find him a job with the Department of Homeland Security or another agency, saying the government needed Arabic speakers to aid its anti-terrorism crusade.
Ismael balked, wary of his new acquaintance and unwilling to play rat, worried he would risk arrest or put others in jeopardy. But Magid persisted, Ismael says, calling or visiting every day for almost a week, vowing that he wanted to meet street dealers only as a means to bust their suppliers. In Ismael's telling, Magid traded on their shared Middle Eastern heritage -- both men are natives of Yemen -- and posed as a fellow Muslim to dupe Ismael into thinking his actions would benefit the U.S. government. "As an older person than me, I respect him, I believe him," says Ismael, 29, his English tinged with an Arab accent. By assisting Magid, Ismael, then employed as a used-car salesman, imagined a career upgrade to serving his adopted homeland. "I was under impression I would be fighting terrorism," he says.
Instead, with a DUI in 1997 the lone blemish on his police record prior to his arrest, Ismael would find himself fighting to absolve his name in court. A conviction would bring 20 years in prison, a fate less disgraceful to a man of faith than pleading guilty to crimes that, he charges, Magid deceived him into committing under the pretense of patriotism. Indeed, while merely acting the part of a Muslim, Magid may have misjudged the piety of the man he apparently pegged as his stooge.
"If I would have to serve 15, 20 years, I would, as long as God knows I'm innocent. I can't lie. It is haram," Ismael says, invoking the Arabic word for "immoral." "I can't do it."
His resolve to win vindication at trial would lift the lid on the murky milieu of federal informants, exposing Magid's past misdeeds, the questionable actions of his supervisors, and the DEA's habit of coddling informants. On a broader level, Ismael's case would trigger a federal probe into whether the DEA hid damaging details about Magid's history from law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and defense lawyers in California and elsewhere, an investigation that could change the fortunes of some 20 people Magid helped put behind bars.
Magid makes for an elusive subject, as befits a person who works undercover for a living. A cell phone number that belonged to him was recently disconnected, and interview requests mailed to his last known address, in Visalia, received no response. His wife, reached at her workplace, vaguely hinted that he's "overseas" before ending the call. Still, much as he may seek to avoid scrutiny, public records and court transcripts reveal how Magid, 43, stumbled into his life's calling as a snitch.
In the late '90s, after his conviction on felony money-laundering charges in New York, and despite a probation order to remain in the state, he left his ex-wife and six children to move to Norfolk, Va. Following a conviction for assaulting a Norfolk police officer, he migrated to Michigan and, later, California. In August 1999, the Fresno police -- tipped off by an informant, as fate would have it -- collared Magid on suspicion of trafficking pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in making methamphetamine. If convicted, he faced a 20-year sentence followed by deportation to Yemen.